WASHINGTON — People of color almost always suffer a disproportionately high impact in coronavirus hot spots, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds. In analyzing 79 counties in 22 states that met hot spot status between June 5 and 18, the CDC found that 96.2 percent of those counties saw Black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American people infected with the coronavirus at rates above their proportion of the population.
The study confirms earlier findings about the relationship between race and the pandemic, which has killed more than 174,000 people in the U.S. A study in June found that African-Americans and Latinos accounted for more than half of all coronavirus infections.
The new study says that Latino people have been hardest hit, falling victim at disparately high rates in 74.7 percent of the 79 counties that reported racial data on the pandemic during that period in June. In North Carolina, for example, 18 counties met coronavirus hot spot status for that period; in all 18 counties, Latinos represented a disproportionate number of infections. In fact, as of late June, Latinos represented close to half of all North Carolina coronavirus cases.
(The CDC described a “hot spot” as a county that met “algorithmic thresholds related to the number of new cases and the changes in incidence,” while “disparities” were deemed to have occurred where there was a greater than 5 percent difference between the proportion of new infections and the proportion in the county’s population of a particular demographic group, or, additionally, if the ratio between those two proportions was greater than 1.5.)
Thom Tillis, a Republican who represents North Carolina in the Senate, mused in July that the state’s “Hispanic population” was suffering high infection rates because of what he described as “less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.” Those comments were widely condemned. So were those by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who said in June that Latino laborers were responsible for the spread because, in his words, “some of these guys, they go to work in a school bus, and they're all just like packed there like sardines.”
The more likely explanation is that Latino people are far more likely to work in industries deemed essential, such as food processing and construction. Latino people may also be more likely to live in multigenerational households that potentially put older people at greater risk from infections brought home by younger family members.
The new CDC study acknowledges that “long-standing discrimination and social inequities might contribute to factors that increase risk for severe disease and death, such as limited access to health care, underlying medical conditions, and higher levels of exposure to pollution and environmental hazards.”
Twenty-two of the 79 hot spot counties from the CDC analysis also indicated a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. Asian-American and Native American populations were far less frequently affected to a disproportionate degree in those same counties. The study acknowledged that high as infection rates have been in communities of color, they could actually be higher because “differences in access to COVID-19 testing could lead to underestimates of prevalence in some underrepresented racial/ethnic populations.”
There were 126 other counties designated as hot spots during that time, but they did not report sufficient racial data.
Lawmakers have called on the CDC to publish more detailed race-specific data on the impact of the pandemic. That effort has been hampered by a federal response that has frequently lacked direction. The problem is compounded by reporting discrepancies across the nation. President Trump has been criticized for not centralizing the coronavirus response in the White House.
White House testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir described the problem in frank terms during June testimony on Capitol Hill. “We can’t develop a national strategy to reach the underserved, or know how well we’re doing, till we have the data that shows us whether we’re reaching them or not,” he said at the time.
Several days before, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance asking laboratories to report racial and other data about people being tested for the coronavirus. That guidance, however, only went into effect at the start of August, which partly explains why data about coronavirus hot spots has remained incomplete.
Another CDC study published on Thursday looks at coronavirus “workplace outbreaks” in Utah between March 6 and June 5. It concludes that “systemic social inequities have resulted in the overrepresentation of Hispanic and nonwhite workers in frontline occupations where exposure to” the coronavirus “might be higher.” It advises “extra vigilance” and “mitigation strategies.”
Outbreaks in meat processing plants in the Midwest have also frequently affected Latino workers there. In late April, Trump signed an executive order telling meat processing plants to stay open.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked the Trump administration to issue and implement safety standards for the people who work at such plants. Many of them are Latinos living in the country illegally, and they could be reluctant to report unsafe working conditions or seek medical care. That, in turn, could contribute to the virus spreading through the community at large.
As one advocate put it at the time that the Hispanic Caucus made its request, “The virus doesn’t ask for papers.”
In response, however, the Trump administration appeared to step back from enforcement efforts.
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